In “The Grand Concourse,” first staged in 2014 at Playwrights Horizons in New York, Heidi Schreck packs the most interesting material into the second act. It’s an odd decision, one that doesn’t serve the play well.
But playwright Schreck does have intriguing ground to explore in that second act.
And the Shotgun Players offer such a well-acted and well-directed production (by Joanie McBrien) — it’s part of the company’s ambitious rotating repertory — that by the end there’s enough to engage the mind and the heart.
In Act I, the first person we meet is Shelley (the vibrant Cathleen Riddley), a vivacious nun who runs a church soup kitchen in the Bronx. She’s praying — to a microwave oven, an amusing conceit. It will eventually turn out that her journey is the one we’re meant to follow, although we won’t really know that until Act II.
We also won’t know until Act II that this is not a sitcom-style light comedy, although there are a few hints in Act I that something off-kilter is going on. In particular, new soup kitchen volunteer Emma (Shotgun mainstay Megan Trout in her usual unerring performance) is a little too wackily flirtatious with staff kitchen worker Oscar (an appealing Caleb Cabrera).
Also, Shelley mentions that she’s having a spiritual crisis of some sort, but other than the fact that she’s praying to a microwave oven, we don’t really see it.
Then there’s the comical Frog (Kevin Clarke, another terrific Shotgun regular); he appears to be a crazy old hippie who keeps wandering into the kitchen area.
If the first act is a getting-to-know-the-characters intro, it’s hampered by mundane dialogue and lack of significant action.
But then there’s Act II.
Frog, it turns out, isn’t just a comical character — he’s a real person, with real mental problems.
Emma isn’t just a troubled and at times giddy young woman — she’s needy and unbalanced, and her behavior affects both Shelley and Oscar in major ways.
And Shelley’s spiritual crisis comes to a surprising climax.
Ultimately the play reveals itself to be a drama about forgiveness, and it proceeds toward a startling conclusion that feels truthful for each of the characters.
Truthful — but unearned. Schreck’s bland first act and increasingly intense second act end up feeling like a playwright’s manipulation rather an organic result of the carefully followed trajectories of four characters.
REVIEW: The Grand Concourse
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: Wednesdays-Sundays, closes Aug. 21
Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org